`The Old West' and `The Young Russia'

The noted Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov has responded to the Georgian war by publishing three articles in Rossiiskaya Gazeta (August 29, September 26 and October 15) and a major essay `The New Cold War' in the journal Russia in Global Affairs (No.5, 2008). The ideas and images and even turns of phrase in his works repeat - sometimes verbatim - parts of his first article (`A Cold War Trap') written hot on the heels of current events.

The following are the main points in his thesis of what can without exaggeration be called a global theory.

1. `Georgia's aggression in Ossetia' is no more than a `pretext and a provocation... a pawn move in the new big game'.
2. The game consists of the `Old West'; seeking to stop its inexorable decline, launching a counterattack, by using South Ossetia against `young authoritarian capitalism'.
3. The beginning of `a new period in world history.' Its main feature is a Cold War between Russia and the `lagging' West.
4. Russia's task in this war is to make judicious use of its domestic and foreign policy resources so that this time round, it can be the victor. Karaganov's latest essay published in October seems to suggest that the Cold War may be put on hold for a while in connection with the world economic crisis, but that makes no fundamental difference to his general argument.

Theoretically speaking, we have been presented, with admittedly a somewhat abridged edition of Oswald Spengler's `The Decline of the West' (translated into Russian as `The Decline of Europe'). True, Karaganov it is not quite clear whether he sees the West as a geographical notion (like Spengler) or as a symbol of the `Liberal-Democratic model'. But more about this dilemma later.

An alternative to Europe

Karaganov's article is in many ways a confession, from the very first lines: `One feels like cursing. In spite of all the incantations, including those made by myself, I believe a new Cold War has started.' Apparently the author takes this as his own personal defeat. But he also sees what is happening as an incontrovertible symptom of the decline of what he calls: `the Old West'. According to Karaganov, the process started in the late 20th century when `the young capitalist countries of East and South-East Asia together with young authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries increasingly began to benefit from globalization'. By the same token, `the Old West was fast losing its role of the intellectual and moral leader of the world'.

In other words, the West had been naïve in believing that after the defeat of fascism and communism there would be no alternative to the liberal-democratic model. Not so, Karaganov objects. There is an alternative. Moreover, the alternative offers `a far more attractive and feasible model of political development'. The author does not bother to explain what exactly makes it so attractive. So one assumes that he shares the famous hypothesis put forward in his time by the chief ideologist of that alternative model; the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad: `European values are the values of Europe, whereas Asian values are universal'.

This may well be true. But where is Russia in all of this? How come that a European country has suddenly become the only European country to be associated with the Asian authoritarian alternative to Europe?

African numbers

Karaganov himself has some doubts about the attractiveness of Asian authoritarian values: `It is unlikely that any thinking and patriotic Russian admires the corrupt state capitalism which has so far prevailed in our country.'

Quite so. In terms of independence, Russian law courts today rank in 84th place (out of 102 countries), according to the World Economic Forum. In terms of respect for the political rights of its citizens, Freedom House puts Russia in 168th place (out of 192 countries). In terms of private property protection it is in 88th place (out of 108 countries), according to the World Economic Forum. In terms of protection of citizens against corruption it is in 147th place (out of 159) according to Transparency International.

We see that according to these indicators, Russia is only just ahead of some African countries. The `Old West' hasn't experienced anything remotely similar to African figures for a long time, despite all the shortcomings of the Liberal-Democratic model. So what exactly are Russia's vital interests? To draw on the experience of the `Old West', to overcome its centuries-old civic backwardness, or to engage it in another confrontation?

The question is of course rhetorical, and I think Karaganov would agree that it is more important for Russia to use the West's experience than to engage in confrontation. But here is the rub: he has to justify Russia's position in the Georgian conflict. There is the theory of `the Old West counterattacking'. After all, a `Cold War is being unleashed against Russia.' In this situation `concessions are meaningless', as he repeats from one article to the next.

Choosing between two `Ms'

We have shifted with incredible speed from the world of global politics in which the Asian `young' are gaining the upper hand over the counterattacking `Old West,' into a world of tough confrontation between the West and Russia. But what is the link between these two worlds? Why is the West's counterattack so inept, aimed as it is not at those who are overtaking it, but at a country which is lagging far behind it?

The answer is surprisingly banal and, oddly, coming from Karaganov, thoroughly national-patriotic: `The main aim of the game which we are being drawn into is to disrupt Russia's modernization.' Again, the question suggests itself, what for? Because `as it has turned out, modernization does not create a vassal, but revives a rival.' A rival to whom?

It is true that according to forecasts the West's share of world GDP will drop to 40% by 2020, but nobody can be sure that Russia's share of the GDP will grow even by 3% over the same period. One wonders, given such a balance of forces, how can Russia possibly be a rival to anyone.

Such grim suspicions with regard to the West could be expected from someone like Mikhail Leontyev: like any self-respecting national patriot he has problems with arithmetic. But Karaganov knows why experts today are not sure of anything. It is because they don't know which of the two big `Ms' (Modernization or Militarization) Russia will opt for in the wake of the Georgian conflict. For modernization, Russia could be a rival of, for example, Brazil and for militarization, only perhaps of Nigeria.

The West of course would prefer a modernizing Russia to a militarizing Russia. The reason is simple: it will be less of a headache and it may even be of some help on the frontline of international tensions; in the Middle East.

Which of the two `Ms' does Karaganov prefer? He is clearly at pains to decide, (hence the confessional nature of his articles). Like every national-liberal, Karaganov is all for modernization, but ... only until Russia becomes engaged in an international conflict. Conflicts sweep away the liberal shell revealing his underlying eternal principle: `My country, right or wrong'. The same principle that Vladimir Solovyov described as national egoism. Thus, yesterday's liberal suddenly becomes a `nationalist with no reservations held'.

The clash between two mutually negating intellectual imperatives leaves Karaganov sitting on a fence. He recommends that Russia embrace both `Ms' at once. `We have a strengthened, but still comparatively weak army. It needs to be strengthened.'

And `there is an obvious need... to make more flexible and politically effective the use of nuclear forces.' That's on the one hand. On the other: `however difficult it may be, it is necessary to preserve the individual freedoms of citizens and broaden the field of their political freedoms'.

Alas, combining guns and butter is a pipedream. It is usually impossible in real history. One has to make a choice between cleaning the Augean stables of civic backwardness at home and confronting the `Old West'. If confrontation is inevitable, then the stables must wait.
A la guerre comme a la guerre

The West as a model

At this point, as promised, I would like to go back to the definition of the `Old West'. Judging from the consistent way in which Karaganov juxtapositions it to authoritarian capitalism, it is clear that, unlike Spengler, he is referring not to a geographical notion but to the `Liberal-Democratic model'. In fact when he speaks about `the Old West' which is yielding ground to pushy authoritarian `young countries', he really means the liberal-democratic model.

But if so, his theory collapses before our eyes. The reason being that the young Asian countries which, according to his scheme, are supposed to challenge the West's model, are eager to acquire it themselves. The trail-blazer among these Asian `orange revolutions' which replaced authoritarian capitalism with the western model was the Philippines in 1986. Indonesia followed its example in 1998. But there is no need to delve into history. Similar peaceful revolutions are taking place in Thailand and Malaysia, the citadel of authoritarian capitalism.

I leave it to the reader to figure out whether this historical expansion of the western model to Asia is a symptom of the decline of the West or whether the Asian orange revolutions have breathed new life into it. Be that as it may, Spengler's theory, which Karaganov trots out to justify the Russian position in the Georgian conflict does not stand up to criticism. The same can be said of his attempt to explain the conflict as being the West launching a counter-offensive.

Let's face it, the declaration of a new Cold War cannot resolve issues, any more than Vyacheslav Nikonov's grotesque attempt to convince the world that in South Ossetia, Russia merely `resisted being destroyed' (see NG of October 15, 2008). If the efforts of Russia's most intelligent and serious proponents have been counter-productive little wonder that Russia has lost the psychological war for the hearts and minds of the world community.

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